Veganism: good for the planet, even better for profits

The move towards veganism may be good for the environment (though the jury is still out on that). But the real winner will be the processed food industry, says Merryn Somerset Webb.


Greggs, the bakery chain, was offering free samples of its vegan sausage roll to early morning punters last week. A friend picking up a coffee declined the offer: "Didn't seem right."

He is not with the zeitgeist on this one. The number of people in the UK identifying as vegan or vegetarian is rising; the roll is a best-seller; and the moral high ground increasingly seems to be held by those with plant-based diets. Join them, we are told, and we can save our health and the planet at the same time.

Subscribe to MoneyWeek

Become a smarter, better informed investor with MoneyWeek.

Will we? The truth is that the jury is still out on this one. Take the environment. It isn't a certainty that a vast increase in plant-based diets would solve all our environmental problems. The carbon cost of industrial cropping is huge: by some estimates, up to 20% of the world's CO2 output is a direct result of ploughing. And not all methods of animal rearing are equal. Grain-fed animals, raised in desertified feedlots, are environmentally harmful. But any farmer will tell you (I am married to one) that pasture-raised ruminants can help to store carbon in, and preserve the quality of, our vital topsoil.

It also isn't clear that a vegan diet is the most healthy one for most people. There is a growing body of research pointing out that mixed diets could well be better than plant-based diets, particularly if those plant-based diets are high in both carbohydrates and heavily processed food. Note the success some researchers have had in reversing type 2 diabetes using high protein and high-fat, animal-based diets, for example.

Advertisement - Article continues below

Finally, the idea that veganism is de facto "kind to animals" needs a little challenge. Factory farming is horrible and there is little excuse for the often-exposed cruelty of slaughterhouses. But just how kind it is to eat only plants rather depends on which animals you care most about. If it is just cows, sheep and chickens, fine. If it is all living creatures, things get a little complicated.

The huge volumes of pesticides used in most arable farming are not good news for the many small animals and insects that thrive on and nurture farms, should they have the luck to survive the plough (think worms, lizards, rabbits, spiders, mice, snakes, slugs, beetles and other insects). There is no getting away from the fact that when it comes to eating vegan, vegetarian or omnivore we are all involved in killing. If you care about each individual living thing, you should perhaps eat nothing but one-and-a-half organic pasture-fed cows a year (I'm assuming 2,000 calories a day) rather than risk being complicit in the deaths of a great many more than one-and-a-half spiders in the course of living off grains. Tricky, isn't it?

This is not to suggest that anything is settled morally, philosophically or even environmentally in either direction. It isn't. All these arguments have been made for decades and all are hard to quantify. But it is impossible to be clear that more vegans equal an unadulterated good for animals, people or planet.

A marketing greenwash opportunity to beat all others

But there is one group for whom the trend towards veganism is definitely a good thing: processed food manufacturers and retailers. The past few years have produced something of a backlash against processed food. We are all a bit worried about our sugar intake; we understand more about how food with a high glycemic load might create insulin resistance; and we are increasingly suspicious of the low-fat product industry, given that the more low-fat food we eat, the fatter we seem to get.

What better time, then, for the industry to find itself with a whole new market into which to sell factory-made, processed food? One that, gloriously, is more ideologically and identity-driven than any other.

This is a marketing greenwash opportunity to beat all others. Create a good vegan product and not only can you virtue-signal about it relentlessly but you can charge a feelgood premium, too. In my local supermarket, Kellogg's is selling a vegan granola; Nestl's Shreddies cereal comes with a green "forever vegan" banner across the top of the packet. In the meat aisle, you can get the Beyond Meat burger, a fully plant-based hamburger that "bleeds".

Advertisement - Article continues below

Finest British beef steak burgers cost £6.61 per kg. The fake burger (which is made mostly of pea protein) costs £21.81 per kg. How's that for premium pricing? There is also vegan chocolate, vegan cheese, vegan fish, vegan chicken and vegan ice-cream. The average price premium for these products is about 50%, by my calculations despite the fact that soy, mushrooms, peas and palm oil are surely cheaper ingredients than dairy and meat.

This is just the beginning. Supermarkets including Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Sainsbury's all mentioned their vegan product ranges in their latest trading results. Unilever acquired fake meat maker Vegetarian Butcher in December and is moving "towards a portfolio with more plant-based products". In 2017, Nestl bought Sweet Earth, a California-based maker of vegetarian and vegan foods, and it is launching its own meat-free Incredible Burger this year. It expects its meat-free business to hit $1bn in the next decade.

There is no reason why food companies shouldn't respond to demand. But those who are turning vegan in an effort to save the world might bear in mind that most of these processed, packaged and shipped products are likely to do more for food company profits than for the planet or your health.

That's certainly true for Greggs. Thanks in part to the success of its vegan sausage rolls, the company reported a 14% rise in sales in the first six weeks of the year. That might benefit shareholders, but is it doing any real good for the rest of us?

This article was first published in the Financial Times




How long can the good times roll?

Despite all the doom and gloom that has dominated our headlines for most of 2019, Britain and most of the rest of the developing world is currently en…
19 Dec 2019
Stock markets

The British equity market is shrinking

British startups are abandoning public stockmarkets and turning to deep-pocketed Silicon Valley venture capitalists for their investment needs.
8 Nov 2019
Stock markets

There are lots of reasons to be bearish – but you should stick with the bulls

There are plenty of reasons to be gloomy about the stockmarkets. But the trend remains up, says Dominic Frisby. And you don’t want to bet against the …
17 Jul 2019

Good news on jobs scares US stockmarkets

June brought the best monthly US jobs growth of the year, but stockmarkets were not best pleased.
11 Jul 2019

Most Popular

Pension tax

Why it makes sense to scrap higher-rate pensions tax relief

The point of pensions tax relief is to keep you out of the means-tested benefits system. The current system is ridiculously generous, says Merryn Some…
24 Feb 2020
Buy to let

Come back buy-to-letters, all is forgiven

The government is winning its war against small private buy-to-let landlords. But who benefits?
23 Feb 2020

Gold, coronavirus, and the high cost of face masks in northern Italy

The price of gold is spiking – as it always does in a global panic. But this bull market predates the coronavirus epidemic, says Dominic Frisby, and w…
26 Feb 2020

The rare earth metal that won't be a secret for long

SPONSORED CONTENT – You can’t keep a good thing hidden forever; now is the time to consider Pensana Rare Earths and the rare earth metals NdPr.
31 Jan 2020